Matthew Phelps

IN 1776, Matthew Phelps, who had buried his wife and two of his children along the Mississippi, arrived in the vicinity of Grand Gulf. His small, flatboat traversed through the dangerous whirlpools in the bend of the river before docking at the mouth of the Big Black River. Just up the Black, more tragedy befell Phelps and his two surviving children. (Credit: Lloyd’s Map of the Lower Mississippi River, J.T. Lloyd, Publisher, 1862, New York)

(Part 2 of 2)

Aboard a small flat-bottomed boat docked at the mouth of the Big Black River, Matthew Phelps rested for a while after having passed through one of the most dangerous bends on the Mississippi River.

It was November 24, 1776, a Sunday.

Phelps had arrived at this spot after suffering enormous hardship and heartbreak.

In the act of relocating from Connecticut to Natchez country in 1776 to avoid the impending Revolutionary War and to settle a British land grant down south, Phelps was doing what he thought was best for his family. He had fought for the British during the French and Indian War and as a result, Phelps and other veterans were rewarded for their service with land grants on British possessions in North America.

But along the way up the Mississippi, Phelps was burdened with the unspeakable task of having to bury his wife and two of his children. Each died one after the other in a matter of days.

Daughter Abigail had breathed her last on Sept. 16. Infant son Atlantic died on Sept. 24. Wife Jerusha was laid to rest on Nov. 14.

Phelps’ family journey from Connecticut to New Orleans had been by ship. From there, they rowed against the current of the Mighty Mississippi in route to present day Claiborne County, where the Black River flowed into the Mississippi at Grand Gulf. Englishman Francis Baily described the location as ”the most dangerous place in the whole navigation of the Mississippi.”

Just up the Black was a cabin on some land Phelps had claimed for his family months earlier.

His wife and two children had died as a result of the harsh southern climate where water-borne illnesses were common as well as yellow fever, malaria and various other maladies. Travel, too, was an exhausting endeavor, particularly for children.

Phelps had watched Abigail, Atlantic and Jerusha fall deathly ill with high fever, diarrhea, chills, nausea and severe stomach pain. He, too, almost died.

As Phelps rested at the juncture of the Black and the Mississippi, onboard with him boat were his two surviving children, 10-year-old Ruth and 6-year-old Luman. Another passenger was 14-year-old Abram Knapp, who Phelps' hired to assist him on the remainder of the journey "for sickness and fatigue had so reduced me I was unable to manage the skiff alone,” Phelps wrote in his memoir.

Just getting up the Mississippi to this point was a miracle within itself.

 

NAVIGATING THE MISSISSIPPI

 

To get to Natchez – via the ocean to New Orleans and then up Mississippi – or from the Ohio down the Mississippi – required knowledge of the great river, no matter where you came from. These early frontiersmen’s knowledge of the Mighty Mississippi would be published in a book in 1801 called The Navigator. Zadok Cramer was the publisher.

Cramer’s idea for The Navigator came in Pittsburgh, then a thriving frontier town at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers where the Ohio is formed. There he observed countless Americans, immigrants and travelers passing through in route west and south. Many planned to settle from Vicksburg to New Orleans along the Mississippi River. Natchez was a key destination.

In addition to buying flatboats and provisions, almost all were looking for information on the western lands and rivers. Navigating the Ohio and Mississippi was a major concern.

With a keen eye for business, Cramer began to research river navigation for the publication of a book to answer the need of the travelers while also promoting immigration west. He learned from rivermen about maneuvering these streams, particularly the Mississippi, which was marked by sandbars, caving banks, whirlpools, snags, sawyers and islands.

His publication would be reprinted and updated many times through the years. The book provides a look at the river landmarks and dangers that all travelers faced. In particular, the most treacherous place on the river was at Grand Gulf, just south of where the Big Black empties into the Mississippi.

 

GRAND GULF WHIRLPOOLS

 

Here’s Cramer’s description of this location as you headed down the Mississippi:

“The river at a sudden turns to the right, rushes itself against a high point of land on the left, at whose base are some large rocks, which beat off the current, and together with the suddenness of the turn, a large eddy is formed immediately below the bluff point, which extends down half a mile.

“On your right the land {later known as Coffee’s Point, Tensas Parish} juts out to a very sharp and narrow point, and just below it and near the right shore, another eddy is formed of less magnitude than the one on the left side. There is no danger in passing this place if you keep nearest the right hand point in high water, and thence nearly in the middle of the river, there being a broad channel, smooth and good between the two eddies, and if you should happen to get out of these, you would only be detained a little while and have some hard rowing to get out again. The prominent danger is in permitting your boat to get so far into the bend that she might get a stroke from the rocks at the foot of the bluff point. This however is easily avoided by a good look out and timely rowing.

“In low water you naturally sweep round near the left bank, and not far from the big rock at the base of the bluff point, then bearing out to the right to avoid the eddy on the left, and keeping a large bar, in the middle of the river and about a mile below the point of rocks on your right.”

Getting through the Grand Gulf whirlpools was a major accomplishment for Phelps. Getting from the mouth of the Black upriver to his cabin promised to be much easier.

 

‘DADDY, DADDY!’

 

To journey up the Big Black, Phelps had Knapp steer the skiff with the children on board, while Phelps pulled the boat from shore with "a rope for a tow line." In a short time, they "came to a large willow tree which projected horizontally from the bank into the stream, and the top of the tree being half submerged a large drift had collected about it, and occasioned a whirlpool to set under the trunk of the tree between its sunken top and the bank, a space of thirty-five or forty feet."

Here, the darkness that had enshrouded him along the Mississippi grew darker still. Said Phelps: "My two lovely children -- all that were left to me, a girl in her tenth and a boy in his sixth year -- were sitting on some blankets in the bow of the skiff, when, in an instant, it was drawn into the eddy under the tree, and the stern sank."

Adam Knapp, the 14-year-old steering the boat, panicked and jumped into the river and "swam around the head of the tree." Phelps, who couldn't swim, tied the rope to the willow and raced along the trunk of the tree toward the skiff, shouting to 10-year-old Ruth to remain still.

Holding onto a branch with his left hand, he attempted to get Luman, the six-year-old, off the boat first but "at that moment the roots of the fallen tree gave way and floated from the bank; the boat broke loose, filled and turned bottom upwards."

In the chaos "amidst the boiling waters," Phelps could only watch and listen to the "voices of my dear babies" scream -- "daddy, daddy" -- before they sank beneath the surface of the Big Black.

Knapp pulled Phelps to shore and rushed for help. When he returned with two men they "found Captain Phelps, naked, half-frozen and frantic." The men recovered the bodies of the children and two more graves were dug. 

"I now viewed myself as being completely stripped of all ... happiness ... hopes ... " Phelps recalled.

A few days later, Phelps, wrecked physically and mentally, arrived at his property only to be devastated again. In the custom of those days, wrote Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne, Phelps' "claim was regarded as forfeited, and new comers, finding it vacant, and no owner or representative in the district, had taken possession."

 

‘THE BLESSING OF GOD’

 

But all was not lost. John Storrs and his son, the two men Phelps had assisted three years earlier when they were ill and down on their luck, came to Phelps' aid. In his own cabin, Storrs comforted the grieving man and nursed him back to health.

Without Storrs, said Phelps, "I had not whereon to rest my weary head, no family, no home, no money, a heart heavy with many sorrows, and even hope was dead." Inconsolable for many days, Phelps said the kindness of Storrs and his son, their care and encouragement, brought him back to life.

Phelps reported that "by the blessing of God" and hard work, Storrs and his son had prospered. They helped Phelps secure another claim less than a mile from theirs that included a cabin and open field for planting. They also supplied him with "a cow, a pair of steers, a horse, necessary farming utensils, and seventy dollars worth" of stock hogs.

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